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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Fear Itself: The Complete First Season
Fear Itself: The Complete First Season
Lionsgate Home Entertainment // Unrated // September 15, 2009
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted September 27, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Fear Itself: The Complete First Season:

Clearly, TV on DVD just works better for some projects, as the unfairly maligned horror anthology Fear Itself proves. As originally broadcast, Fear Itself unfortunately started with one of its weakest episodes, (The Sacrifice) making semi-apathetic TV viewers such as myself give up before the series had even truly begun. Quite effectively reordered for DVD, these episodes mark this four-double-sided disc collection of thirteen 42-minute stand-alone stories as a worthy addition to the Network TV Horror Derby. Sure, commercial reality means these mini-movies don't flow as well as Masters Of Horror - jarring commercial breaks often start and end with the same footage (to keep you bathroom break freaks on track) - and the theme song prefacing each episode is to die for, (like I want to die each time I hear it) but ultimately this collection of mostly solid stories and serious directors represents seriously satisfying satisfaction for those who just can't get enough horror.


Disc One
Stuart Gordon's director's cut of Eater starts things off in high style, as a super-tall cannibalistic maniac is set to be held overnight at a snowy small-town police precinct. Loads of dim, gritty atmosphere, and a truly freaky villain ramp up to real fear before the first commercial break. Horrific suggested violence - more than was suggested during the original broadcast - presages a delirious cat-and-mouse game in the almost-deserted station, pitting a rookie cop against the maniac and her twisted co-workers. Occasional misused CGI effects cheapen Gordon's efforts a bit, which ultimately (though hampered by the network format) render some of the best straight-ahead horror seen on network TV in who knows how long.


The Machinist director Brad Anderson helms Spooked, in which a disgraced rogue cop (played by the ever-more-interesting Eric Roberts) can't seem to shake some of the perpetrators who fell victim to his brand of rough justice. Roberts' grimly laconic performance brings nuanced interiority to TV, while a suitably spooky set-up (a stakeout in a deserted house) sadly degenerates a bit as goofy CGI and television formula begins to take over.


Community finds American Psycho director Mary Harron playing a tired tune, conducting a newlywed pair as they move into a disturbingly conformist planned-community. Even though the place is so great residents will lie and mutilate to stay there, the draconian environment and threat of capital punishment actually makes some community members a bit edgy. Setting up a few nicely unhinged performances, our boilerplate plot otherwise goes mostly nowhere on a sea of predictability, with only slight variations in circumstance to lend much interest.


Remake helmer Breck Eisner (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Crazies) prepares for The Sacrifice by throwing gritty urban crime into a The Village-style isolated-from-modern-times fortress. Loads of evocative atmosphere make for engaging viewing, as our anti-heroes find the hot frontier chicks running the fort may not be all they seem to be. Then, as every cop show in the '70s needed to sport a gratuitous weekly car chase, The Sacrifice throws out a wasteful buzz-kill monster-mash fight/chase ending, obliterating tension with 'explosions'. Unfortunately, this below average effort was used as the series' premier episode.


Disc Two
The Bad News Bears of horror (director John Landis and screenwriter Victor Salva) deliver an effective, disturbing chiller despite a twist ending that makes garden-variety predictability look obtuse. While an unready-to-wed couple does the aisle-walk, one of them gets some unwelcome news: "the person you are marrying is a serial killer." Creepy settings and unsettling weather blow through a bunch of eerily ambiguous performances and tense set pieces, making In Sickness and In Health a worthy addition to the network horror anthology realm.


Family Man allows Freddy Vs. Jason director Ronny Yu to show he can do more than turn Freddy Kruger into a pinball. An enthralling character study, which imparts invaluable legal advice - "involuntary spiritual transmigration is a lousy murder defense" - this episode features two great performances from Clifton Collins Jr. and Colin Ferguson. Intrigue, knife-swinging violence, exacting pacing and one of the best jump scares on TV mark another standout for the series.


Something With Bite parlays an interesting collusion of real life and fantasy - a piece of almost-road-kill that seems to be a werewolf is brought to a veterinarian - into a relatively silly, comedic tale of liberation through animal instincts. It's probably mostly of note for being written by John Landis' son Max.


New Year's Day is mega-Saw director Darren Lynn Bousman's director's cut of an episode that should have been cut from the series. While I'm more than enthusiastic about zombies, Bousman's Cloverfield-style take on the subject - lots of real-time video aesthetics - quickly becomes nothing but a series of stylistic tics. These zombies, possibly afflicted with TMJ, (a nasty jaw-lock disorder) strut around like cocky bastards while cracking their necks and jaws to the accompaniment of ridiculously loud bone-snaps, over and over. It's a pointless gimmick overused to the point of aggravation.


Disc Three
Larry Fessenden arrives to save us with Skin and Bones, his maturing take on the Wendigo concept, something that's been a spooky muse for him for a while now. Something like a modern version of the overlooked Ravenous, this episode finds a ranch embroiled in familial trauma and worse, when the patriarch emerges from the snowy mountains after ten days of isolation. Trouble is, he's oddly skeletal, and seems to have developed a taste for unusual meat. After a freaky start, Fessenden's complex tale full of realistic characters and intelligently constructed alleyways (all leading to the same dead end) comes up with many delightful moments of frisson, not the least of which is a line reading wherein the word 'undoing' clearly means 'disemboweled'. Only Fessenden's reliance on flashy, gimmicky editing tricks during shock sequences betrays this otherwise masterful effort.


Chance is a John Dahl-directed offering skewing heavily towards his sensibilities. As a noir piece of suspense with possible supernatural elements it's captivating and well acted throughout. The tale of an under-the-table antiques deal gone very sour has a few shock elements, but mostly takes the not-so-innocent-idiot-in-way-over-his-head to pleasantly murderous extremes.


Spirit Box busts out the teen-beat EC Comics vibe, as a couple of very hot high school girls conduct a séance. Instead of contacting a lost relative, they get the standard voice from beyond the grave, one looking for revenge. Creepy teachers and a girl whose eyes have been eaten by turtles keep this fun, light effort - hung on a framework of four methodically spaced jump scares - queasy enough for hardened horror fans.


Echoes is Rupert Wainwright's director's cut, a (by one-hour TV standards) sprawling past-life regression tale - or is it? - of a man tormented by visions of a true lothario who used to live in his new house. Back and forth dynamics, psychiatric sessions, too many people's stories and more create a story that's hard to hold onto, and not as engaging as it thinks it is.


Disc Four
The Circle lives all by itself on this disc, as well it should, as possibly the weakest episode in the series. Director Eduardo Rodriguez doesn't have much to go on with this dorky script in which a best-selling horror author is subtly pressured into trying to repeat the successful formula. On a scary Halloween night it seems like his stories are coming to life, to tell him he will never escape. Decent characters are sacrificed to 'get-stupid' fear and a plot barely worthy of an EC Comics horror knock-off.


Overall, Fear Itself touts a pretty high success rate, at least notching up plenty of entertaining episodes. If the made-for-TV format (commercial breaks - minus actual commercials - are still terrifically obtrusive) doesn't sit well with DVD viewing, the fact that you can down these things when you want, as many as you want, probably makes the series seem better than it did when millions of viewers originally began tuning out. That's a good thing for lovers of televised horror anthologies - in this format, Fear Itself appreciably lives up to its name.







The DVD


Video:

1.78:1 widescreen episodes preserve the original broadcast ratio (God love the digital transition, eh?) and all look pretty nice. Most episodes feature stylized horrific colors, that is, gloomy or washed out, with an emphasis on queasy greens, ghostly pale blues, and the like. Transfer problems are limited to a little bit of occasional digital noise.



Sound:

Dolby Digital Stereo Audio is strong, dialog is mixed effectively with other audio elements and music, and stereo design is relatively imaginative. It is a fairly hot mix, however, so care with the volume control will be necessary.



Extras:

Depending on your source, you'll find that only eight or nine of the thirteen episodes presented here actually aired on NBC, so you may consider the Unaired Episodes as an extra. Other than that, there's the goofy Plastic Gravestone Packaging that finds four double-sided discs (actually three double-sided and one single-sided disc) stacked on top of each other, two to a side of the case. Many say this could be a scratching risk. I say, get your DVDs off the magic fingers mattress! Lastly, five-minute "Recipe for Fear" - Director's Interviews accompany each episode.



Final Thoughts:

Fear Itself works much better on DVD than it did during its original broadcast run, even though each episode's hardcore 'made-for-TV' vibe is a little off-putting. There are a few stinker episodes among some standard TV-Horror offerings and a few superior efforts, which leaves you with an overall above average rating. If, like me, you are a diehard Kolchak: The Night Stalker fan, and you eat up Night Gallery with glee, you'll find Fear Itself Recommended.

- Kurt Dahlke

~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com

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